12/6/16

INTO THE INFERNO - REVIEW


After taking a general, critical look at the pros and cons of the Internet in Lo & Behold: Reveries Of The Connected World, which also came out this year, Werner Herzog turns back to nature to focus on volcanoes.

Released through Netflix, Into The Inferno presents itself as sort of a follow-up to Herzog's own documentary Encounters At The End Of The World since that's where he first met volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer who appears in and co-directs this latest outing. The film takes a look specifically at active volcanoes and how their isolated life affects the people living around them. The real theme explored here being the spiritual impact left by nature and Man's need to attach a higher meaning to his mysterious, timeless surroundings. Typically, the documentary isn't predictable as Herzog travels the world not only looking at volcanoes themselves, capturing beautiful images in the process, but also reflecting on significant events in history relating to volcanoes like unexpected eruptions, unusual belief systems or even the birth of mankind.

Herzog's journey takes him to Ethiopia where Clive Oppenheimer joins an archeological dig, Iceland, Indonesia and North Korea among others. There are stunning images of magma boiling inside volcanoes throughout as well as compelling archival footage, some of which captured by French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft who died tragically in an eruption. But the footage of North Korean pageants Herzog picks up in that country is equally fascinating as its leader-based belief system offers a unique look into spirituality. General themes Herzog ponders include life, death, religion, nature, mankind, eternity, culture and, last but not least, chicken churches because a Werner Herzog movie wouldn't be complete without its share of bizarre imagery. This is the filmmaker's most accomplished and interesting documentary since Encounters At The End Of The World and you can tell these volcanoes were on his mind for quite a while.

In a year packed with meaningless and underwhelming blockbusters, there's literally no reason to miss Into The Inferno: this is not only a really well made documentary by one of the best filmmakers around but it's easily one of the best films of the year and one hopes an Oscar is coming the director's way even if it's unlikely those statuettes matter to him much.

Excellent, compelling work.

12/5/16

ARRIVAL - VLOG 05/12/16


I finally talk about Arrival.

Or will I finally talk about Arrival?

Or have I...?

SCROOGED - REVIEW


Released in 1988 and directed by Richard Donner, Scrooged was a modern retelling of Dickens' classic story A Christmas Carol with Bill Murray as a particularly grouchy TV producer who is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve.

This marked a mini-comeback for Bill Murray after The Razor's Edge failed to make a dent at the box-office and despite Scrooged not sitting well with the likes of Roger Ebert, it's enjoyed something of a cult status since its release. This was certainly not the Scrooge re-imagining anyone was expecting as it's far stranger and more mean-spirited than you'd think, which might explain some reviewers' reservations. The tone throughout yo-yos between creepy and goofy so when the inevitable uplifting climax happens, you might find yourself too weirded out to really buy it. Perhaps part of the problem is that Murray sells his character's meanness too well so his 360 switch to "happy mode" needed more work to be convincing. The Ghost of Christmas Future usually packs the biggest emotional punch of the story when Scrooge comes face to face with his own mortality but here, it feels somewhat rushed so that also contributes to the ending falling a bit short.

The film's darker tone, however, also adds an element of fun to the whole thing. The black humour along with the macabre (and very good) practical effects give Scrooged an almost Halloween-friendly feel and a playful Danny Elfman score certainly underlines that. You've got Bobcat Goldthwait pursuing Bill Murray with a shotgun, a golf ball popping out of a dead man's head, Lee Majors starring in a violent Santa-themed action movie, the Ghost of Christmas Present relentlessly hitting our Scrooge in the face, it's all pretty wacky but it means you're never bored: there's always something amusingly odd around the corner. Murray is as lively as ever and Karen Allen was a perfect choice to play his love interest, even though their romance is somewhat underwritten. As a modern re-vamp of A Christmas Carol, Scrooged ticks most of the right boxes even if it maybe could have done with a sharper script and more heart.

It may have only half-succeeded in bringing the Christmas spirit but Scrooged remains an enjoyably moody and bizarre comedy that breathes some new life into one of the most familiar stories out there. It's funny, random and the perfect antidote to some of the cheesier Christmas movies out there.

Humbug? I think not.

A MERRY FRIGGIN' CHRISTMAS - REVIEW


One of Robin Williams' last films, A Merry Friggin' Christmas got a limited release in 2014 so you shouldn't be too surprised if you missed it. Unfortunately, good Christmas movies are hard to come by so let's see if this one is worth checking out.

The film sees Boyd Mitchler (Joel McHale) and his wife Luann (Lauren Graham) having to spend Christmas with Boyd's father Virgil (Williams), who doesn't get along with his son, and the rest of the family. Boyd's primary goal, to keep the magic of Christmas alive for his young son, is soon put in jeopardy when he realises he forgot the kid's presents back home. He jumps in his car and sets off to recover them but he faces several setbacks along the way. In the vein of Bad Santa, this is a black comedy with a dash of Christmas spirit and it's a refreshing change from the sappy releases this season tends to churn out. This one isn't too focused on gross-out humour and, instead, it prioritises the thorny relationships between the main characters and how those evolve.

Robin Williams isn't given too many opportunities to go all out but he does a reliably good job, especially with the more emotional moments, once again effortlessly juggling comedy and drama. The story could have probably been fleshed-out a tad more as neither the National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation-style set-up or the road trip plot thread deliver completely. Bigger, more unexpected things needed to happen to Boyd and his dad to make their eventual reconciliation worth it and it's unclear why we had to spend this much time with the rest of the family when they really offer little by the end. Having said that, a sharp script and a lively cast which also includes Tim Heidecker, Mark Proksch, Jeffrey Tambor and Oliver Platt make this movie entertaining throughout.

While never quite as hilarious, dark or unpredictable as it could have been, A Merry Friggin' Christmas is nevertheless an underrated comedy with lots of funny moments and just the right amount of Christmas spirit to make it worth a watch, especially during the holidays.

Grinches need not apply.

12/4/16

PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES - REVIEW


Released in 1932, Pack Up Your Troubles was Laurel & Hardy's second feature film and it threw the clueless duo in the middle of WWI as they are sent to fight in the trenches despite them initially trying to dodge the draft.

They are quickly found to be incompetent and are sent to work in the kitchens but they eventually redeem themselves by (accidentally, of course) capturing a whole bunch of enemies when they take over a tank and ride it out-of-control over the trenches. When one of their soldier buddies is killed in action, Stan and Ollie have a new mission: take care of his little girl until they can find her grandfather. Most Laurel & Hardy features tend to be just farce but this one has a bit more heart and is therefore more reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's films like The Kid or City Lights. There's something refreshing about seeing Stan and Ollie actually care about someone else and do everything they can, however clumsily, to see their good deed through.

The little girl in question, played by Jacquie Lyn, is pretty adorable and her friendship with Laurel & Hardy is a joy. Pack Up Your Troubles never gets cheesy, thankfully, and even when our heroes are doing something honourable, they still find a way to do it in the most monumentally stupid way possible. Whether it's physically visiting every single Mr. Smith in town instead of just calling them or mistakenly robbing a bank when asking for a loan in order to not let the little girl get sent to an orphanage. This movie rarely makes people's Top 5 Best Laurel & Hardy Movies lists but it really should: it may not be the funniest but it's definitely one of their best.

Unlike A Chump At Oxford, which really felt like 3 shorts roughly linked together, Pack Up Your Troubles is one well-told story with laughs and heart in equal amounts. I would definitely recommend you check this one out, whether you're a fan of Laurel & Hardy or not.

Good stuff.

12/2/16

A CHUMP AT OXFORD - REVIEW


Laurel & Hardy star in A Chump At Oxford, a feature released in 1940 in which a reliably down-and-out Stan and Ollie go to an employment agency and try out a couple of different jobs before realising that what they really need is an education.

They first attempt a butler and maid job with Laurel pretending to be the maid, of course. A shambolic dinner party ensues as they unsurprisingly trash the classy gathering, and they are soon chased out at gunpoint. After unwittingly catching a bank robber who bumps into them when trying to flee while they were working as street sweepers, Stan and Ollie are offered a job by the thankful bank manager but, since they lack a proper education, he enrols them at Oxford University instead and they are promptly off to England. There, they somehow get lost in a garden maze where some undergraduate students play a bunch of pranks on them. This lands everyone in trouble with the Dean but then we discover that Stan is in fact Lord Paddington, an exemplary athlete and scholar who once lost his memory when a closing window hit his head. Another bump on the head quickly turns Stan back to his old self and Ollie is forced to suffer the consequences.

A Chump At Oxford was originally a 40 minute-long short but it was later stretched to feature length. The whole dinner party scene doesn't exactly add anything to the main plot, which is paper thin, but it includes some of the film's best moments. Essentially, this is three Laurel & Hardy shorts played together back to back and it feels like it. Having the entire thing take place in Oxford University would have made more sense, especially with that title. Some of the gags in this one last a little too long and it's not all gold but there are some funny moments, for sure, especially near the end when Stan/Lord Paddington treats Ollie like a manservant. Laurel & Hardy regular Jimmy Finlayson (aka the angry moustache guy) plays the dinner party's host Mr. Vanderveer and look out for a young Peter Cushing in a minor role as one of the undergraduate students.

While fans of the legendary comedy duo will have a decent time with this one, it's definitely not one of Laurel & Hardy's best and it feels a little unfocused and slight. I wouldn't say it's essential viewing but even at their worst, these guys are enjoyable to watch so you won't regret checking it out.

Average outing.

11/30/16

SUPERSTAR - REVIEW


The SNL spin-off movies are a patchy affair, to say the least. For every Blues Brothers, there's a Blues Brothers 2000, for every Wayne's World, there's an It's Pat: The Movie. Superstar sees Molly Shannon reprise her Mary Katherine Gallagher role from the show.

Molly Shannon's creation is awkward and odd yet egomaniacal and driven: she's deeply unpopular at the Catholic school she attends but remains convinced that she is a "superstar" and that her big break is coming. Cue lots of jokes about how desperate she is and some loud slapstick where she crashes into things. There's also a romantic subplot as she soon becomes interested in the school's most popular hunk Sky Corrigan, played by a reliably entertaining Will Ferrell. Story-wise, it's all rather predictable, mostly because it parodies teen movies centred around a school competition and the clichés of the genre are so familiar they leave little in the way of surprises. There's admittedly not much else they could have done with this character but Napoleon Dynamite this isn't.

While Shannon can be very funny, Mary Katherine Gallagher just did not warrant her own feature film. Superstar has nothing new to say and most of its jokes fall flat. Like it or not, at least A Night At The Roxbury made good use of its leads, two of which being Shannon and Ferrell, by the way. That movie maybe didn't need to exist either and not having Jim Carrey in it cost it some major points but it was fun and most of its jokes, surprisingly, worked. Here, you keep waiting for something unexpected and clever to happen but it never does. Not that the film is particularly bad, it does have a couple of funny moments, but it's very underwhelming and considering the talent involved, that's a real shame. If anything, the best joke in the entire movie is that the secondary school students are all played by people over 30.

If you're looking for a great SNL movie, those do exist but Superstar isn't one of them. It's amusing in short bursts but the central character is not likeable or all that funny and the plot lacks creativity. Maybe watch it once on Netflix if you're a fan of SNL but don't expect to remember it the next day.

Not so super.

11/28/16

CAFÉ SOCIETY - REVIEW


This year saw the release of Café Society, the latest film by Woody Allen. Set in the 1930's, it starred Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell as three parts of an awkward love triangle.

Jesse Eisenberg is Bobby Dorfman, a young neurotic who moves to Los Angeles to work for his uncle Phil (Carell), a wealthy talent agent. Though he is tasked with small errands, he gets to opportunity to attend a lot of fancy parties and he soon falls in love with Phil's secretary Veronica (Stewart). What Bobby doesn't realise, however, is that Veronica is having an affair with Phil, who is unsure whether to leave his wife for her or not. This sort of plot is very reminiscent of other Woody Allen films so this new outing definitely suffers from some overly-familiar scenes here and there. The love triangle is only the focal point early on in the film as Bobby eventually moves back to New York where he starts working in a club run by his brother Ben, who happens to be a gangster.

The interesting thing about Café Society is how it gradually merges Bobby's story with his brother's. A rather subtle parallel is drawn between how Ben, a criminal, is in the middle of a Jewish family with a religious side and a more humanist side and how Bobby himself is having to decide between pursuing his true love Veronica or settling with his new wife also called Veronica (Blake Lively). Had the film been a little more creative and unpredictable with its storytelling, this could have been fleshed out further and made for a fascinating gem. As it stands, this is a slight effort by the prolific director with a lot of interesting things to say but no unique way in which to say them. It's well made, the performances are all solid and it looks great but Café Society is more fun to think about than it is to sit through, especially with a particularly unenthusiastic narration by Allen himself.

Although it certainly could have done with more surprises plot-wise, Café Society remains one of Woody Allen's better recent efforts. It's definitely worth checking out but I wouldn't say it's essential viewing unless you're a fan of the filmmaker's work.

Good, not great.

Popular Posts